by Rebecca Gray-O'Dell
Red. Yellow. Blue.
From childhood, we learn these three colors as primary colors, colors that are used to create other colors. The principal also applies today in printer inks and toner just as much as it does with crayons or paint.
But blue, yellow and red are also primary colors in a very different sense. Historically, they are the first colors used by humans to replicate items seen in their lives. Red and yellow ochers appear in our earliest art.
Eventually, these colors find their way into textiles; however, what works for cave paintings doesn’t necessarily work well in clothing. Pigments derived from minerals and earth don’t always adhere well to the fibers used in clothing production and those that do stick around generally don’t survive repeated exposure to the sun, perspiration and the (very) occasional washing. So, other means of coloring textiles must be found.
These desired pigments are found in a variety of plants. Through human ingenuity and determination, a lot of experimentation and possibly a few accidents along the way, the art of dyeing with plants is discovered.
Quite a few plants that yield pigments make acceptable colors on cloth. Some of these plants you can grow in your own garden today. A word of caution, however, as most of these dye plants tend to act more like a weed than other cultivated plants. It makes them very easy to grow, even for those not gifted with a green thumb, but require careful attention so as not to overrun the rest of your garden or back yard.
For the most part, it is easy to create your own natural dyes. You will need to collect enough dyestuff (where the pigment comes from), water and a pot or kettle you don’t plan on using for food. The use of a mordant, from a metal such as aluminum, iron or copper, is needed to help ‘fix' or set the color, though only in small amounts. More explicit directions, dye recipes, are available from books on natural or plant-based dyes.
The color yellow is perhaps the most common color, besides sage and olive greens, produced by plants. An easy way to experiment with making and using natural dyes is harvesting marigolds, golden marguerites or calendula flowers. They can be used fresh or dried. What material you want to dye will depend on how many flowers you need. A skein of wool yarn will require more dyestuff to produce a good color than a small piece of silk or cotton fabric. The skin of onions also yields a good yellow on fabric as long as the material being dyed doesn't stay in the dye-bath too long, otherwise, it turns a golden toned brown.
|Picking calendula flowers|
For the more adventuresome, growing lady’s bedstraw and cutting the top part of the plant off while it is in bloom can make a nice yellow dye. The best yellows are achieved on plant-based fibers, cotton or linen. Shades of drab green appear when wool is used. The roots of this plant may also be used to create a red dye.
Weld is perhaps the best plant that produces a long-lasting and vibrant yellow. It has a very long history of use, dating back to the middle of the Iron Age, about 1 BCE. A common plant throughout Europe and parts of Asia and Africa, it eventually is introduced to North America, where it is considered to be a weed. The top part of the plant, the stalk, flowers, and leaves, are used fresh or dried for dyes. At Landis Valley Village and Farm Museum, we have our own bed of weld just started this year, waiting to give us shades of sunshine.
Blue is a mysterious color. In fact, there are only several types of plants around the world that produce a true-blue dye. These plants are mostly from the genus Indigofera, which thrives in tropical areas from present day India and other parts of southern Asia, parts of West Africa, and parts of Central and South America. Two other plants are also common sources of indigo: dyer’s knotweed, used in East Asia, and woad, used primarily in northern Europe. The oldest use of indigo as a textile dye actually belongs to the coast of modern day Peru, where remains of cloth bearing indigo dates to about 6,000 years ago, a remarkably long time ago for a color that requires multiple processes to extract the color.
|Young Japanese indigo plants in the Log Farm garden|
Indigo is a difficult color to achieve as far as natural dyes go. The plants give hardly a hint of the blue pigment they contain, except for a slight bluish tint to the overall green of the plant. Through a multiple step process, the pigment is extracted and then reduced to produce a useable dye. Each culture has their own procedure for this process, often including fermentation and the use of stale urine to create the chemicals needed to precipitate and create an indigo dye. Because of this, blue dyers, as well as other dyers, were kept to the fringes of settlements and cities.
It’s hard and often times smelly work, but it’s worth the trouble. Indigo is a strong and lasting dye. It will dye any material well, especially cotton, even modern synthetic fabrics. Unlike other dyes, which require soaking and simmering the material to be colored, indigo needs oxidization, air, to produce blue. The dye-bath itself is often a yellowish green, with blue appearing on the surface. After allowing the material to absorb the dye, the material is removed and as the air strikes it, the blue appears. It takes repeated dips in the indigo bath to produce the darkest shades of blue.
At the museum, there are plantings of both woad and dyer’s knotweed since they are best suited to our local climate. If you wish to try to make your own indigo magic in your garden, try growing dyer’s knotweed. There’s nothing wrong with woad, but you will need to grow lots of plants (acres worth) to get a substantial amount of indigo.
Red is another slightly elusive color. For millennia, only one plant produces a color closest to true red: madder. Nothing on the top part of the plant confirms what color lies beneath the soil where the vibrant roots reside. The madder plant is a climbing shrub which can be trained to a trellis to prevent it from overtaking everything else. The green parts of the plant are somewhat prickly and stick like Velcro.
Roots are harvested when the plant is generally 3-5 years old when the roots are more substantial in size. They can be used fresh or dried. Soak the dried or fresh roots to extract the pigment. Unlocking the red pigment can take some practice as shades of orange are often yielded if the temperature of the dyebath is too hot, the pH is incorrect or the hardness of the water used to make the dyebath is off.
Practice makes perfect, though, as is the case for what is known as Turkey red. This particular color is famed for coloring cotton fabrics popular in the 18th and 19th century. It yields a red more vibrant than the brick red of traditional madder dyes, even though to get that shade required a very lengthy and expensive process.
You'll find a stand of madder plants growing in our gardens here at the museum. Rumor has it that some of the madder plants are soon ready to harvest.
From these three colors, you can get nearly every shade of the rainbow. In fact, yellow and blue are very important in making green since a true green is another hard to achieve color in the natural dye world.
The world would be quite dull without yellow, red and blue.